Sidewalk cafes by the dozen, baguettes in bicycle baskets, the classic French shoulder shrug, charming pedestrian-friendly plazas and squares, and residents with a special Gallic grace and beauty. Am I in Avignon? Lyon? St. Tropez? Non, mon ami, just a bit north of the U.S.
Quebec City offers a savory taste of Europe right here in North America. Think of it as France without the attitude. Friendly locals convey that sense of romance and Old World charm found across the Atlantic, making Quebec City a wonderfully distinctive destination in Canada.
The city is located within the St. Lawrence River Valley, framed to the north by the majestic Laurentian Mountains and to the south by the Appalachian foothills and mountains leading to New England. The St. Lawrence River, flowing beneath the cliffs of Upper Town (dominated by the regal Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac, one of the world’s great hotels) swirls into the Atlantic and explains the colonization of this part of the world.
Settlement occurred in four phases: Native Amerindians, the French, the British and finally, the Canadian Confederation in 1867. Chosen as a site for a permanent trading post in 1608 by Samuel de Champlain, Quebec’s name comes from an Algonquin word for “where the river narrows.” The year 1608 marked the beginning of a continual French presence in the area. In the 17th and 18th centuries, several historic battles were fought there among the French, British, Americans and native peoples. Rusted cannon balls still can be seen lodged in trees and buildings in the Old City. It remains the only walled city in the U.S. and Canada.
Quebec City is delightful for fall foliage and impressive with its boughs of green and remarkable light in spring and summer. Visitors in the colder months can enjoy skiing, Christmas markets and the famous Winter Carnival.
Quebec City Attractions
For a touch of culture, head to the Musee de la Civilisation just across the street from the cruise port. Here you’ll find a mixed bag of exhibits, including a model of Champlain’s early dwelling on the shores of the St. Lawrence; a longboat, the transportation of choice by the early Native Americans; and the Olympic torch.
Stroll through the Plains of Abraham — also called Battlefields Park — where the British and French fought in 1759. Today it’s Quebec City’s equivalent of Manhattan’s Central Park, home to concerts in summer and cross-country skiing and sledding in winter. Enjoy the tranquil gardens and river vistas while envisioning the hard-fought battles there. There’s a multimedia show and more than 30 regimental uniforms in the Plains of Abraham Museum.
Learn more about the battles at the Plains of Abraham and Benedict Arnold’s march to Quebec at Musee du Fort, a historic re-creation of the six sieges of Quebec. It’s conveniently located near Chateau Frontenac and open daily during the spring, summer and fall.
Join in the hustle and flow around the Place Royale, a centerpiece of Old Town. The young crowd clusters and older folks stop to rest near the regal statue of Louis XIV or at one of the many cafes.
Dufferin Terrace, located above the Old Town and the river, offers a one-stop experience blending history, showbiz and commerce. It’s close to great restaurants, charming shops, the Old Town and street performers — mimes, jugglers and the like. Pull up a bench and enjoy!
Art lovers shouldn’t miss the Musee National des Beaux-Arts du Quebec, featuring centuries worth of paintings and drawings from the region, as well as a unique and comprehensive collection of Inuit art.
The Ile d’Orleans, just 25 minutes from the Vieux Port, is a rustic and beautiful island where time almost seems to stand still. Its wondrous farms, churches, produce stands and quaint shops offer a wonderful respite from the urban port. In spring, sample strawberries; in fall, pick apples off heavily laden trees in the orchards of apple cider makers. (Remember that cider here, as in Europe, is an alcoholic beverage.) Many of the wineries offer samples in tasting rooms overlooking vineyards. Combine a gourmet lunch with wine tasting at Vignoble Sainte-Petronille vineyard, permanent home to a “food truck” run by hotel Auberge Saint-Antoine’s top-rated restaurant Panache.
Have more time and a rental car? Drive to the Parc de la Chute-Montmorency, where the cascading falls are one and-a-half times higher than Niagara. Stunning mountain and river views accompany a cable car ride to the top of the cliff where walking trails and a suspension bridge take you to lookout points. Before heading back, stop in the elegant Manoir Montmorency where you’ll find a gift shop and interpretation center.
Travel just 15 minutes from Quebec City to enter the fascinating world of the Huron-Wendat people, the first residents in this part of Canada. The Huron Traditional Site, located on the reservation, features guided tours that visit longhouses and a museum to explain tribal life in the 17th century. Interactive activities, native food sampling and dance presentations provide a glimpse into their culture and traditional know-how. A short walk through scenic natural surroundings leads to Kabir Kouba Falls by the Saint-Charles River. The center includes a hotel, gift shop and restaurant.
Quebec City Restaurants
Quebec City is a fine destination for foodies, who can enjoy culinary experiences ranging from simple bistro fare to sublime fine dining. The narrow streets of the Old City are lined with charming outdoor cafes with menus and prices to suit every traveler’s taste and budget. Although this is a French-speaking province, most servers speak excellent English. Don’t be surprised if you taste a bit of maple syrup during your meals; it’s used to flavor everything from cocktails to stews and desserts. For a low-brow bar snack, give poutine a try. The fast-food dish covers french fries with brown gravy and cheese curds.
Caribou is a sweet Quebecois alcoholic beverage quaffed fall and winter to take the chill off. Served hot, it’s made of red wine, hard liquor (usually whisky) and maple syrup, of course.
Panache in stunning Auberge Saint-Antoine across the street from the cruise port is rightly touted by locals and visitors as the best fine-dining spot in town. A reclaimed 19th-century maritime warehouse with stone walls, wood-plank floors and massive wood beams is the rustic setting for intimate dining. It’s a great place for a special occasion meal featuring creative, seasonal French-Canadian cuisine with a master chef’s twist. Much of the produce is grown at the restaurant’s organic garden on Ile d’Orleans. The extensive wine cellar showcases a wide variety of French and local wines.
Celebrating 50 years in business, Restaurant La Cremaillere is a fine-dining restaurant in Old Quebec that doesn’t take itself too seriously. International cuisine is served in two spacious dining rooms, where many dishes, ranging from Caesar salad to crepes suzette, are prepared tableside. The service is expert but unpretentious. Don’t be surprised if the owner’s son picks up a guitar to serenade guests with popular ballads and a few French folk songs.
Award-winning Le Pain Beni offers innovative French-Canadian cuisine featuring regional products in a relaxed bistro setting. The comfortable main dining room is inside an old stone house, while street-side outdoor seating is ideal for people watching. It’s located near the famed Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac and art-lined Rue du Tresor in the heart of Upper Old Quebec City.
French farm-house-charming Lapin Saute is right in the middle of the busiest tourist area in lower Old Quebec, yet it offers a wonderful and affordable dining experience with consistently great French bistro food. As the name suggests, rabbit dishes — including pate and poutine — are specialties. End your meal with a signature maple creme brulee. On a sunny day, opt for the flowery patio with its view of tiny Felix Leclerc Park.
Le Petit Cochon Dingue is a charming family dining spot in the heart of lower Old City. Reasonable prices, rave reviews for its food, and both indoor and outdoor seating make it an ideal breakfast, lunch or dinner stop. The extensive menu features baked goods, crepes, sandwiches, quiche, soup, salads and pizza. Its staff has a reputation for be very friendly and helpful.
Le Cafe du Monde offers mussels you won’t soon forget. Dining here feels like a delightful taste of Paris, lunching on a terrace overlooking the St. Lawrence.
Shopping in Quebec City
At Le Marche du Vieux Port, Quebec City’s farmer’s market, shop for all things made with maple sugar — biscuits, syrup, candies — and the region’s famous ice wines. In fall, don’t leave without a crisp apple to munch on the walk back to your hotel.
Le Vieux Port offers easy access to shopping. Just a few blocks away is Place Royale — the 400-year-old plaza regarded as the birthplace of French civilization in Canada where Samuel de Champlain chose to build his Habitation when he arrived in the New World in 1608. The replica buildings house restaurants, galleries, shops and museums. Head north on Rue Notre Dame to find bustling Rue du Petit-Champlain, considered the oldest commercial street in North America. Art galleries, clothing stores, souvenir shops and quite a few cafes line the pedestrian street.
Check out the artists exhibiting along Rue de Tresor (literally Treasure Street) and take a sample home. Choose from watercolors of the Citadel, oil paintings of the Chateau Frontenac, splendid street scenes in varied media and a variety of handicrafts. This daily art show is there through rain and snow and is especially wonderful on a bright sunny day.
Laurier Quebec is the city’s largest mall, offering familiar brands such as H&M, Limited, Sears and Old Navy.
–written by Marcia Levin; updated by Ron and Mary James